2017 U.S. Senate Race

Is There Life After Doug Jones for Alabama Democrats?

Doug Jones speaks at an October campaign rally with Joe Biden (Source: Doug Jones for Senate Committee via Wikimedia Commons)

Win or lose, Doug Jones has done something few would have considered possible not long ago: given a candidate of the Alabama Democratic Party what appears to be a legitimate shot at winning a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Jones, who faces off against Republican Roy Moore on Tuesday for the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is mounting a challenge to the Republican monopoly on state political power in Alabama that the GOP has been forced to take seriously.

Polls suggest that Jones has a chance – a slim one, but a chance – to win.  That is affirmed by most of the GOP faithful – from President Donald Trump to Steve Bannon to Gov.  Kay Ivey – showing a united front for Moore, a candidate many Republicans had expressed doubts about.

As the high-profile Jones-Moore race concludes, however, a question remains: Is the state seeing an election tied distinctly to Jones, his campaign and his opponent, or is the Alabama Democratic Party being revived as a political force in the deep red state?

Watering the Grass Roots

Jones and his campaign emerged as an independent phenomenon.

“Doug Jones is probably the single strongest statewide candidate that the Democrats could have put up,” said UAB communication studies professor and political commentator Dr. Larry Powell.

“He comes across well in the media, knows how to speak in soundbites. He has a record to be proud of. He’s got a few issues that he supports as a Democrat that will hurt him within the state but not nearly as many as most Democrats would. He’s conservative on guns,” Powell said.

Jones, a former U.S. attorney, is best known for his successful prosecution of some of the bombers of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church many years after the 1963 crime.

The Jones campaign strategy did not depend on the Democratic Party – state or national – to get up and running, a Jones for Senate spokesman said. “This campaign …  basically it’s been run by Doug Jones, those close to him and the staff here, and so it’s been run here by the Doug Jones Campaign out of Birmingham,” said Jones campaign staffer Sebastian Kitchen.

“Based on the state of the party in Alabama, there’s a lot of rebuilding to do and a lot of that process has begun,” Kitchen said. “It started from the ground up and we’re working and we’ve got, you know, people throughout the state who are working and reaching out to people … In the last six weeks our volunteers alone have made over 800,000 phone calls …

“The campaign has knocked on over 100,000 doors in that same time period. And so there’s just a lot of contact, and I think that’s incredibly important – that not only Doug himself is out and about talking to people, answering questions, talking about issues, but that we also have an energized volunteer base of thousands of people who are also knocking on doors and making phone calls.”

Jones and his surrogates are heavily traveling the state, with press releases and campaign ads coming with what appears to be increasing frequency in the waning days of the campaign.

Democratic Party Backing

But how much has the Alabama Democratic Party, considerably weakened statewide now for decades, done to support Jones in the upcoming election, and how much will the party benefit from the Jones campaign?

State leaders and grass-roots activists describe a Democratic network more extensive than had been apparent before the Jones campaign.

Nancy Worley, chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, said the excitement about the Jones campaign is palpable.

We’ve seen more energy in this campaign than we’ve seen in dozens of campaigns before this. So the energy, the enthusiasm, all of that is very different in this election than past elections and I think we can (attribute) that to Doug,” she said.

“Doug just brings out a lot of good in people and their willingness to fight for what they really need and want,” she said. “It’s wonderful when people get excited about politics.”

“We (the Alabama Democratic Party) can be involved from a personnel standpoint, but we can’t give a whole lot of money because, in some cases the code of Alabama limits how much we can spend. In other cases the federal government rules how much we can spend.” Worley said.

“But on the nonfinancial side, we’ve worked very hard with our county chairs and all of our faithful Democratic volunteers of our state to make sure that people go out and vote and go to the polls on December 12. We’ve made sure that there are poll watchers that are at the polls on that Tuesday watching to make sure that everything goes right. We’ve worked on getting out signs … and just doing whatever our counties have asked us to do that we thought we could be helpful to them.

“So, we feel the party has been very very active to the extent they’ve wanted us to be active. We feel like we’ve been doing everything we can possibly do,” Worley said.

Among other efforts, the state party is pushing Jones’ candidacy through digital channels. The party website, which speaks of retooling and rebuilding the party, features a promotion for Jones’ campaign as one of its main images. The same is true on the party’s Facebook page, which is running videos attacking Moore and promoting Jones.

Joe Reed, a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee – many concede that he controls it – and head of the Alabama Democratic Caucus – an African-American subset of the party with members all over the state – said that the party has been “encouraging” people to vote for Jones.

“We’re encouraging people to get out and vote … . We’ve done radio spots. We’ve talked about the merits of Doug Jones and why and the programs that the Democratic party stands for and why Doug Jones ought to be elected,” Reed said.

Local Push

The party faithful on the local level in various Democratic organizations have been working with the Jones campaign in grass-roots efforts. State Rep. Merika Coleman is a member of several Democratic organizations, including the state party and the Jefferson County Democratic Party, where she serves as vice-president of Youth Affairs. Through various subgroups in the party, Coleman said, there are Democrats working for the Jones campaign throughout the state.

“Many of those folks who are part of the county executive committee work directly with the Doug Jones campaign,” she said. “Many of the members are phone banking, or doing a lot of the postcards or literally canvassing throughout the neighborhoods. So it’s been a collective effort.”

Coleman also serves as the county government relations chair for the Alabama New South Coalition, which she said got involved in Jones’ campaign at the grass-roots level.

“Our organization will be canvassing churches. And we actually have a ballot,” she said, adding that the coalition’s efforts are designed to build awareness outside of the “huge media effort that we’ve seen on television” and on social media.

“I’m a strong believer in grass roots and the impact that grass roots has on a campaign,” Coleman said. “Even the textbooks will tell you that, regardless if this person identifies as a conservative or liberal, the personal touch from a candidate or someone who believes in that candidate makes a difference (in) whether they’re going to support a candidate or not. So that ground campaign is so important.”

Coleman said she personally would be going door-to-door to make sure voters know about the Jones campaign and to persuade them to support Jones on Dec. 12.

Coleman also serves as the ADC’s vice chair for Women’s Affairs. “It too, has a grass-roots effort, where that organization is going door-to-door, they’re doing signage, they’re doing phone calling, they’re doing absentee balloting as well,” she said.

The Alabama Democratic Caucus, headed by Reed, is supporting Jones’ candidacy, said Grover Dunn, the Jefferson County chairman for the ADC, which has similar county units in 66 counties. In Jefferson County, Dunn is responsible for recruiting people to knock on doors in predominantly black communities, to distribute the ADC ballot throughout the county, and on voting day, to have people distribute the ballot outside polling places.

“And we’ve been nailing up signs, all over the area … just generally talking to people,” he said. Part of that effort has included leaving the ballot, in a plastic bag, on the doors of churches. “We have a statement on the outside asking the pastors please allow his clerk to pass those ballots out to the congregation after service, when they’re on their way out the door, Sunday,” Dunn said. “We’re trying to reach as many black voters as we can with those methods.”

“Lots of folks are excited about this campaign, excited about the real opportunity of a Democrat being elected from the state of Alabama to represent us in U.S. Congress,” Coleman said. “The number of college students that have gotten actively involved in this campaign, we had DNC representatives here, we had folks coming in from other states, too, that are so excited about what’s happening in the great state of Alabama right now that they want to get actively involved in this race.”

Bob Parker, the chairman for the Greater Birmingham Democrats, said the grass-roots initiative for Jones’ campaign could be what pulls him ahead of the race.

“I think that what we have learned from the (new Birmingham Mayor Randall) Woodfin campaign and what we have seen from the Jones campaign – both serve as a model for what to do next year and certainly the local elections in the Birmingham area and I assume statewide – the level of grass-roots involvement just exploded after Trump’s election last year. It went from being fairly tepid to groups breaking out all over. And people are looking for ways to get involved.”

What Hope for Democrats?

Powell said he considers it unlikely that Jones’ campaign strength will spark a resurgence of the Democratic party in Alabama

“The Democratic Party in Alabama is still fractured and there’s still a bit of infighting still going along. I don’t know that this will reduce that. If he wins, they’ve got something to really put together for a couple of years and so forth. But if he loses, it could be like, ‘This was the best we could do and it still wasn’t good enough.’”

In the long-term, he said, state Democrats have “got to do something that cuts down on that 20 point margin. And the Democrats in Alabama have been going downhill ever since they committed ideological suicide in 1986.”

That was the year when infighting between Democratic candidates for governor was widely seen as handing the governorship to Guy Hunt, the first Republican to hold the office since the end of Reconstruction.

Some commentators believe the Alabama Democratic Party, which had dominated state politics until that time, never recovered, leading eventually to the Republican supermajority that now controls the state.

Powell said that Jones’ campaign, no matter how it turns out, may have little to say about the actual future of the Democrats in Alabama.

“I don’t have a whole lot of hope for them unless he wins and they can put some sort of coalition together,” he said. “If he loses, it is going to look like an aberration and it’s going to be hard for the Democrats to figure another situation in which you’d have such a strong Democratic candidate and such a weak Republican candidate that you have a hypothetical change in the future.”

Despite that, Jones’ campaign has inspired some Democratic voters. For instance, paralegal Meghan Hall said after a Jones speech, “I feel reenergized and hopeful that Jones can win.”

For his part, Jones began the campaign expressing some hope that the Senate race could invigorate the Democrats. “Democrats have conceded too many races lately,” he told Weld reporter Ryan Scott back in July.

“We’ve had some good people running, but we’ve conceded a lot of races and we’ve conceded a lot of issues. And by focusing on this one election, without the noise of a presidential election or even elections for a whole slate of candidates, whether its governor or lieutenant governor or whatever, we can focus on what’s happening in the state right now, what’s happening in this country right now, and it gives the Democrats an opportunity to find that voice. And I say Democrats ­– I think it gives a lot of people, not just Democrats, an opportunity to find, on the one hand, a voice or simply an alternative.”

In that same interview, though, Jones said he hoped that voters would look beyond party politics.

“I think there are so many people in this state that don’t really see themselves as strictly conservative or strictly progressive; they’re somewhere in the middle,” Jones said. “They like to look at the candidates and they like to look at a broad range of issues. This is that opportunity (to reach out to those voters), and I think that is going to be more akin to what the Democratic Party in this state will be in the future, and that’s why this is such an interesting opportunity to be able to focus like a laser on those kitchen table issues that really mean something.”